The need to provide healthier school meals has been a headline-grabber since Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better campaign hit the media in February. With the Government's commitment to provide £220m in funding over the next three years to help deliver better school meals, parents' expectations are high that good, nutritious food will soon be on the menu.
However, a survey conducted exclusively for Caterer in association with the Local Authority Caterer's Association reveals that the road to success could be longer than expected. The survey of over a quarter of LACA senior service managers, covering nearly 10,000 schools, found out that the state of kitchen equipment in many schools is poor. In some schools, the right equipment to prepare and serve fresh, healthy food is simply not there.
Two-thirds of the survey respondents stated that up to a quarter of kitchens in their schools were poor, with a further 3% stating that more than three-quarters were poor.
One in five respondents said that more than three-quarters of their schools' kitchens were more than 30 years old. And an astonishing 77% of kitchens include at least one piece of equipment over 30 years old, with 17% containing equipment more than 50 years old.
Julian Edwards, director of Tenet Foodservice Consultancy, says the results are not surprising. "I visit school kitchens regularly and generally find they're in a poor state. All schools would like to have good kitchens, but new equipment tends to be at the poor end of the budgeting spectrum. There's no lack of will to improve kitchen facilities, it's just a matter of prioritising funding," he says.
Edwards says mind-sets need to change so schools are more confident about allocating funds into kitchens. "Until recently the LEA would have had overall budget responsibilities. But as more delegated funding is hitting schools, the onus is now on head teachers to decide where the money should go. But they can find it hard to take money away from curriculum buildings such as a new maths block," he says.
Ultimately, poor kitchen equipment can equal poor food quality. Outdated cooking facilities and low-technology apparatus coupled with inadequate facilities to prepare and store raw ingredients make unprocessed meals an uphill struggle.
It's not just kids who get a bad deal if equipment isn't up to scratch; catering staff can also suffer. "Poor ventilation is another common problem in school kitchens, sometimes making it hazardous to work," says Edwards.
The survey also reveals that more than a quarter of schools surveyed don't have trained cooks able to prepare fresh school meals. Vic Laws, managing director of AVL Consultancy, finds this surprising. "The majority may just need refresher courses, but I'm surprised so many are saying they need training," he says.
Edwards says there may be a lack of trained chefs, but staff often have hidden talents which have remained unused. "There's not a major craft problem. Staff just need more time to prepare food and more hands in the kitchen to help deliver this," he says.
One borough which has revamped its kitchens is Greenwich, the pilot area for Oliver's campaign. Although most of the necessary equipment - including steamers and sufficiently large ovens - was in place before it introduced healthier menus, additional items were needed. The new menus were piloted initially at one secondary school, which allowed the local council to analyse its equipment needs before rolling out the new menus to more schools. It ensured all kitchens were equipped with the necessary items needed to cope with the higher volume of fresh ingredients, particularly fresh vegetables.
The new equipment was bought by the council's procurement department. It received detailed advice from the authority's catering managers as to the models that would be most fit for the purpose - these were identified as vegetable preparation machines, stick blenders, additional refrigerators and larger saucepans.
Gurmel Singh-Kandola, director of culture and community services for Greenwich Council, says: "It was relatively straightforward to manage the process of upgrading those items that were needed to help us cope with the higher volume of fresh vegetables. The training requirement wasn't huge either, as our kitchens were already equipped with stick blenders and vegetable preparation machines. It was simply a case of helping staff get used to the larger, higher-volume versions."
Following Oliver's efforts to revamp school meals in the borough, councillors in Greenwich have retained a commitment to support the in-house catering service. Political support also enabled the purchase of the required new equipment to be funded through the council's education budget, and supplemented by one-off bids of £50,000 each to two further funds under council control. These were the Greenwich Neighbourhood Renewal - a government-funded initiative that aims to improve people's quality of life in areas of greatest need - and the Single Regeneration Budget - a government-backed regeneration programme supporting a range of health-based regeneration projects across the borough. However, these funds were one-off grants that had to be spent within the 2004-05 financial year. The council has to look to new sources to fund the ongoing renewal of equipment.
Some items of kitchen equipment - such as replacing old fridges - will be funded from a central property maintenance budget. Last year about £8,000 was spent from this budget. Money earmarked for the current year is a further £16,000.
In addition, the school catering service is able to upgrade smaller items of equipment on an ongoing basis out of the general overheads of running the school meals service, which is funded as part of the overall catering contract. For the current financial year this equipment budget is just over £30,000.
Plans for the coming year include installing additional cooking equipment such as hobs and food mixers into eight regeneration kitchens, for food which is partly cooked elsewhere at larger kitchens and finished off and served on site. The council will also buy refrigerated trolleys for salad bar display at both primary and secondary schools.
Singh-Kandola says the key to Greenwich's success has been getting support from its catering teams as changes have been made.
"The staff initially felt daunted by the prospect of changing the menus, especially as each school was required to make an overnight switch away from processed ingredients. The involvement of a celebrity chef gave staff an extra impetus - though it also added to the feeling of pressure. But the key motivation for kitchen staff has been the desire to get involved in creating healthier and better meals for our school pupils," he says.
So how easy is it for other schools to follow Greenwich's lead? Allocating funding is the biggest hurdle. "Schools need to carry out a feasibility study," says Edwards. "You need to work out the cost benefits of investing in new equipment. School governors will want to know what the return on investment will be. However, gains are often hard to measure as they're about improved quality, not more income," he warns.
LACA chairman Kevin McKay says one big cost benefit of new equipment is improved efficiency. "Just think of the fuel savings that can be made with newer equipment - this will help them pay for themselves in reduced fuel consumption," he says.
However, some schools may be able to resurrect old equipment to reduce costs. Many older kitchens boast large industrial equipment that has simply lain redundant over the years through lack of boiling, baking and roasting. "They're not in disrepair, but are simply not used, as processed food relies on fryers and ovens," says Edwards.
Oliver considers stick blenders, vegetable preparation machines and salad spinners to be essential items for school kitchens. The majority of respondents to the survey agreed with the first two items, but only 10% see salad spinners as essential.
Laws agrees with this response. "The blender is the bit of kit that disguises vegetables," he says. "If you present vegetables as a side dish, children won't eat them, but if you blend them into chicken curry sauce, they will." Vegetable preparation machines are also essential to get meals out on time. "Unless you have this equipment, labour costs will be too high. But leaf salads are not popular enough to warrant the purchase of salad spinners," says Laws.
Schools will have to bite the bullet and allocate more money from overstretched budgets into funding new kitchen equipment if healthy menus are to become a reality. However, Porter says success will not happen overnight. "The culture over the last 15 years has been very price-driven, and I really believe it will take the same amount of time before we see some measurable improvements," he adds.
Experience can help school caterers
Peter Kay, director of CEDA, the Catering Equipment Distributors Association, says its members can be of particular help to school caterers.
"CEDA members have vast experience of all types of kitchen operation within the education sector, and so are ideally placed to recommend the best selection and layout of equipment required.
CEDA encourages caterers to ‘buy a package, not a box', and again this is particularly appropriate to school caterers. Traditionally, many have bought equipment from government contracts, but have then had the inconvience of organising all the project management aspects themselves, as well as installation, commissioning and ongoing maintenance.
As a result many take pot luck when it comes to finding a company to carry out these vital services and end up using companies without the required expertise or knowledge of current legal regulations. This need not be the case, as CEDA members are now able to buy off these contracts, and pass on the savings to the clients while offering all the additional benefits of design, installation, and planned maintenance, to ensure that the equipment continues to function to its optimum for many years."
- CEDA, the Catering Equipment Distributions Association, represents the majority of professional distributors in the UK. All CEDA members trade in accordance with an agreed code of good practice. To contact a CEDA member, call Peter Kay on 07770 848798, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org